She continued as an actress in film in the 1940s, and then moved to television acting in the 1950s.
Born Thelma McQueen in Tampa, Florida, on January 7, 1911, she planned to become a nurse until a high school teacher suggested that she try acting. McQueen initially studied with Janet Collins and went on to dance with the Venezuela Jones Negro Youth Group. Around this time she acquired the nickname "Butterfly" – a tribute to her constantly moving hands – for her performance of the Butterfly Ballet in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. (She had always hated her birth name, and later legally changed her name to Butterfly McQueen.) She performed with the dance troupe of Katherine Dunham before making her professional debut in George Abbott's Brown Sugar. In 1975, at age 64, McQueen received a bachelor's degree in political science from New York City College.
McQueen was appearing on the Broadway stage in the comedy What a Life in 1938 when she was spotted by Kay Brown, talent scout for David O. Selznick, then in pre-production for Gone With the Wind (eventually released in 1939). Brown recommended that McQueen audition for the film. After Selznick saw her screen test, he never considered anyone else and McQueen was cast in the role that would become her most identifiable – "Prissy", a simple-minded house maid. She uttered the famous words: "Oh, Miss Scarlett! I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies!" Her distinctive, high-pitched voice was noted by a critic who described it as "the itsy-little voice fading over the far horizon of comprehension". While the role is well known to audiences, McQueen did not enjoy playing the part and felt it was demeaning to African-Americans.
She also played an uncredited bit part as a sales assistant in The Women (1939), filmed after Gone with the Wind but released before it. She also played Butterfly, Rochester's niece and Mary Livingstone's maid in the Jack Benny radio program for a time during World War II. She appeared in an uncredited role in Mildred Pierce (1945) (where she had a good amount of screen time) and played a supporting role in Duel in the Sun (1946). By 1947, she had grown tired of the ethnic stereotypes she was required to play and ended her film career.
During World War II, McQueen frequently appeared as a comedian on the Armed Forces Radio Service broadcast Jubilee. Many of these broadcasts are available on the Internet Archive.
From 1950 until 1952 she was featured in another racially stereotyped role on the television series Beulah. She played Beulah's friend Oriole, a character originated on radio by Ruby Dandridge, who would then take over the TV role from McQueen in 1952-53. In a lighter moment, she appeared in a 1969 episode of The Dating Game.
Offers for acting roles began to dry up around this time, and she devoted herself to other pursuits including political study. She received a bachelor's degree in political science from City College of New York in 1975. McQueen played the character of Aunt Thelma, a fairy godmother, in the ABC Weekend Special episode "The Seven Wishes of Joanna Peabody" (1978) and the ABC Afterschool Special episode "Seven Wishes of a Rich Kid" (1979); her performance in the latter earned her a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming. She had one more role of substance in the 1986 film The Mosquito Coast.
McQueen was in the original version of the stage musical The Wiz when it debuted in Baltimore in 1974. She played the Queen of the Field Mice, a character from the original L. Frank Baum novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. However, when the show was revised prior to going to Broadway, McQueen's role was cut by incoming director Geoffrey Holder.
McQueen never married or had any children. She lived in New York in the summer months and in Augusta, Georgia, during the winter.
In July 1983, a jury awarded McQueen $60,000 in a judgment stemming from a lawsuit she filed against two bus terminal security guards. McQueen sued for harassment after she claimed the security guards accused her of being a pickpocket and a vagrant while she was at a bus terminal in April 1979.
In 1989, the Freedom From Religion Foundation honored her with its Freethought Heroine Award. "I'm an atheist," she had declared, "and Christianity appears to me to be the most absurd imposture of all the religions, and I'm puzzled that so many people can't see through a religion that encourages irresponsibility and bigotry." She told a reporter, "As my ancestors are free from slavery, I am free from the slavery of religion." This quote was used by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in advertisements inside Madison, Wisconsin, buses in 2009 and in an Atlanta market in 2010.
She lamented that, had humans put the energy on Earth and on people that had been put on mythology and on Jesus Christ, there would be less hunger and homelessness. "They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I'm trying to make the streets beautiful here ... When it's clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell."
McQueen died at age 84 on December 22, 1995, at Doctors Hospital in Augusta, from burns sustained when a kerosene heater she attempted to light malfunctioned and burst into flames.
McQueen donated her body to medical science and remembered the Freedom From Religion Foundation in her will.